The First Nuns in Arkansas, 1851

Early Days in Little Rock

On the 6th of February, 1851, the Sisters, under the fatherly care of the bishop, reached their new home among the forest trees after an unusually prosperous journey. They were met at the Little Rock wharf by Rev. John O’Reilly and several leading people of the neighborhood, but there was no convent to receive them. The vicar-general, to whom the care of building the convent had been entrusted, died during the bishop’s absence, and nothing had since been done. But the holy prelate at once gave them his own house—a poor, humble abode, indeed—a one-story frame palace, which he surrendered with a good heart, and with kind, endearing words. He and his three students lived as best they could among the faithful; he making his headquarters with his old friend, Judge Carroll. The very next day the Sisters were called upon to exercise the works of mercy—the visitation of the sick and the instruction of adults becoming duties of almost hourly recurrence. Their religious garb was a source of great amusement to the people, who had never before seen anything like it. One Sunday after their arrival they opened catechism classes with three children. But gradually the number increased until it reached two hundred.

On the 10th of March the first postulant entered—Miss Margaret Fitzpatrick, an Irish lady whose virtues and accomplishments made her a very desirable acquisition to the young community. The first reception took place June 22, the Right Rev. Bishop Spalding of Lousville, officiating. One of the postulants gave not only her life and services for the good of religion in Arkansas, but also a very large fortune. To her the community was indebted for many of the conveniences found within the convent walls, while her charity, piety, and submission to the Divine will were truly admirable.

The bishop’s house adjoined the cathedral, where the Sisters heard Mass and made their spiritual exercises every day. They opened school in a house opposite the church with an attendance of thirty-five children, chiefly non-Catholics. Of the non-Catholic pupils who flocked to the Sisters, one of the first members says: “Some came through curiosity, some to criticize, and others in an honest search for knowledge. A brick edifice, formerly used as a meeting-house, was purchased for a school, and the Sisters now having more ample accommodation, their pupils, from far and near, soon swelled to hundreds. Barely a dozen of these were Catholics. This state of things soon aroused the ire of some sectarian clergy. A Presbyterian minister, named Green, called a meeting of his congregation “to warn them against the errors of popery and draw aside the veil that hid from public view the real character of the individuals called nuns who had just come among them.” The attendance was large, but the result unexpected. Next morning, at eight o’clock, several prominent members of the “Green flock” appeared at the poor, shabby-looking convent and introduced themselves as representatives of that distinguished congregation. “We presume, ladies,” said the speaker, “you have heard that our minister assembled us last evening for the purpose of embittering our minds against you.” Mother M. Teresa acknowledged that they had heard something of the kind, but had given the matter little attention. The visitors begged to assure them that Mr. Green’s “harangue” could do them no injury. So disgusted were they with his coarse, abusive language that they resolved never again to enter his church—a resolution they faithfully kept. Ever after these liberal people were among the best friends of the community.

The “Green opponent,” however, was not to be so easily daunted. He issued a proclamation of the same sort to his disciples at Pine Bluff—a village near Little Rock—appointing a day on which he would deliver a lecture at the court-house “On the Turpitude of Rome.” But the bishop thought that in dealing with this poor man he had arrived at that point when patience ceases to be a virtue, and he now showed a front that rather alarmed the aggressive among the sects. “For the future,” said he, “every one that makes an accusation against the Church will be compelled to prove it.” He ordered Rev. P. Behan, an able divine and an eloquent speaker, to confront Mr. Green at the court-house, and politely interrupt him if he made any false statement. There would doubtless have been a hot debate had not poor Mr. Green’s career been cut short, with scarcely a moment’s warning, before the hour appointed for his lecture. This had a salutary effect on the people, who regarded it as a signal proof of the Divine wrath. But, as a rule, the Sisters had little to suffer from bigotry in Arkansas. In those remote days they were looked upon as the most precious boon which Providence could bestow on the rising country. People blessed God on account of them and the bishop for bringing them.

They thought it a great thing to find for their children in the backwoods of Arkansas teachers of the highest order—ladies who could instruct them in every accomplishment, and at the same time imbue their minds with every religious and moral virtue, and while bestowing mental culture keep their hearts free from evil in this dangerous period of youth. Few states at that early period possessed such a treasure, and the rareness of the blessing made them value it the more. During the Know-Nothing movement, it is true, the good religious suffered some annoyance, and were frequently in danger of their very lives. The unholy creatures who engaged in this species of warfare were constantly prowling about the shanty known as the convent, uttering fearful blasphemies about everything sacred in the eyes of its inmates. They had sworn the destruction of this poor edifice, which a strong man could almost knock down with his shoulder. The friends of the community, Protestant as well as Catholic, earnestly besought them to seek safety in flight, and provision of the amplest kind was made in more places than one for their security. But they preferred to stand their ground, and die at the foot of the altar, should God call for such a sacrifice.

One night, when all was ready for the execution of a gun-powder plot, a guard was placed around the convent. About 9 P.M. two shots were fired, which the nuns would have taken for “signal guns” had they not been followed by loud and distressing cries. Two brothers-in-law, who had headed the rioters, had quarreled, fired simultaneously, and killed each other. Next day all the combustibles necessary fro the blowing-up were found in an empty house opposite the convent. After this the Know-Nothings troubled them no more.

Yet they were often regarded with a suspicious eye. When the backwoodsmen came into Little Rock they would crowd about the premises to catch a glimpse of the strange women who wore mourning robes forever, and gave up their whole lives to labor and sacrifice. By word and work the bishop did much to remove prejudice. A man of fine appearance and noble presence, he was in height almost a giant. His manners were frank and kind, and he was careful never to give offense. He was by far the best speaker in the State, whether religious or political, and he explained the articles of faith so as to instruct his hearers without paining those who differed from him in creed. He did not always succeed in persuading or convincing his opponents, but he never failed to make them his friends. Though he was simplicity personified, there was something majestic in his mien, and people who met him for the first time felt instinctively that they were in the presence of the chief man in the State. This a person with the dress and air of a gentleman once accosted him as he was going about the country in search of his scattered flock: “Is it really that a Catholic bishop has come to Little Rock?” “I believe it is,” he returned. Gazing inquiringly at him, the stranger continued emphatically: “Then you must be the man!” The bishop did not deny the impeachment. “Pardon me,” said another, “but I always thought Catholic clergymen wore horns.” “Well, you see,” said the prelate smiling, “I have not put on mine this morning.” A pleasant conversation ensued, and the questioner left the bishop’s presence with more knowledge than he had when he entered it.

The convent which Bishop Byrne erected for the Sisters was ready about nine months after their arrival. On the Feast of All Saints, November 1, he blessed it and dedicated it to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Next day he offered up the Holy Sacrifice in a room fitted up as a chapel, barely large enough to hold an altar and two prie-dieux. It opened by folding doors into the community room, which was used as a choir during the hours of prayer. It also served as a chapel of ease to the cathedral, many persons assisting at early Mass there on Sundays and holydays. The grounds were spacious and finely shaded by large forest trees. The children were delighted to follow the Sisters to the convent grove, where they could enjoy themselves during their short recreations on their verdant play-ground. Early in 1852 Bishop Byrne was called to New Orleans on business. On his return he brought the daughters of several Irish families with whom he had been long acquainted to Little Rock, and placed them at school in his convent. Others joined them from New Gascony and various parts of the surrounding country, and St. Mary’s Academy was now regularly established. Many of the emigrants who had come to New Orleans with Bishop Byrne on the John O’Toole proceeded to Fort Smith and other parts of Arkansas, where they bought land, built homes for their families, and settled down comfortably. It is rather unfortunate for a region of such fine resources that emigration was never directed to its borders to any great extent—perhaps because it was a slave State, or that other portions of the country held out greater inducements. The bishop’s intelligent measures to promote it were of good benefit to the Southwest. But many even of his settlers subsequently removed their household gods to regions which they considered more congenial.

Many of the friends and pupils of the Sisters became Catholics, and bigotry disappeared wherever their influence extended. Everything seemed to augur a brilliant future for the community, but the Civil War, and still more the death of the bishop, retarded their prosperity. The instruction of adults in the principles and practice of our holy religion, the training of the young in piety and knowledge, the visitation of the sick have been the chief works of mercy undertaken by the Little Rock religious. Many of their pupils have devoted themselves to God in various religious orders.

Leaves from the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy, in Four Volumes; Volume III: Containing Sketches of the Order in Newfoundland and the United States, by a Member of the Order of Mercy (New York: The Catholic Publication Society, 1889), 334-339.

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